For 2013, Toyota has managed to give the Avalon a seemingly awesome performance makeover. It's quicker and more responsive in every way, yet it actually feels far more composed and refined compared to the outgoing model.
In order to get that better responsiveness and control without inviting harshness, engineers borrowed some strategies from the Lexus lineup (especially the latest GS) and added rebound springs within the shocks, increased the spring rate somewhat, and went to a digressive damper valving. Larger stabilizer bars were added in front and in back.
What they achieved we wouldn't call sporty, but it's supremely capable and controllable in a way that the Avalon hasn't been in the past—essentially muting the almost cartoonish queasiness, bounciness, and excessive body motion of the former model.
V-6 models of the Avalon are still anticipated to be the more popular; they come with Toyota's familiar 3.5-liter V-6, putting out 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. The six-speed automatic adopts a sport-shift mode, and incorporates throttle blipping for smoother gear changes. On Avalon Touring and Limited models, the automatic also gets paddle controls for shifting, and the drivetrain has Eco, Normal, and Sport driving modes that adjust steering, throttle, and shift feel. Zero to 60 mph times takes just 6.7 seconds.
On the new Avalon Hybrid, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder runs a lean Atkinson cycle, teamed with nickel-metal hydride batteries and two motors tucked into the transaxle. Gearing continuously variable, through Toyota's tried-and-true planetary power-split setup. A net of 200 horsepower coaxes 0-60 mph times of 8.2 seconds out of the Hybrid four-door, and three driving modes are offered. EV, Eco, and Sport. EV mode allows drivers to run the Avalon on battery power alone up to 25 mph, while Eco mode cuts down on throttle response and HVAC output. Sport mode adapts the Avalon Hybrid's throttle and transmission for quicker response.
Those are the details; yet in real-world driving, the Hybrid emerges as the unlikely winner, and in our opinion the best bet. Thanks to a stronger, stiffer, lighter-weight structure, the V-6 Avalon is lighter than before. But with the V-6 Avalon weighing less than 3,500 pounds and the Avalon Hybrid weighing less than 3,600 pounds, there's not as much of a difference in powertrain responsiveness as you might think. Press Sport mode for the Hybrid, and the electric-motor system and quick tip-in give you the confidence to pass quickly or power out of a corner. What's more, we think that the Hybrid feels better-balanced at times in corners near the cornering limit—perhaps because the battery pack in back gives it a better weight distribution.
In either model, the Avalon drives like a smaller car than it is, with a precise, natural feel even on curvy, imperfect surfaces. And Sport mode firms up the steering somewhat on V-6 models, or more dramatically in the Hybrid.
Disc brakes provide strong stops, with 11.6-inch discs in front and 11.0-inchers in back, but the pedal feel was one of our biggest disappointments on the V-6 in particular; it's spongy and not at all confident or assuring.